BANGKOK, Jan (IPS) – East Timor’s Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo is appealing for peace to be given a chance in tsunami-hit Aceh as an Indonesian top-level team meets with Acehnese rebels later this week at talks in Finland.
”We hope that this meeting can bring forth some solutions or some way to create peace and mutual understanding in Aceh,” said Bishop Belo, the Catholic Church’s former apostolic administrator of East Timor’s capital Dili.
”There is a movement to claim the independence of Aceh. The Indonesian people and the Acehnese should sit down, now, and through dialogue work this out,” he told journalists at a meeting on Tuesday.
In 1996 Bishop Belo shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s present Foreign Minister, for standing up to the Indonesians in the East Timorese fight for independence – a violent struggle which began after the Indonesian armed forces invaded the former Portuguese colony on Dec. 7, 1975.
At the time of East Timor’s U.N.-sponsored independence referendum in August 1999 when the territory voted to break away from Indonesia, Indonesian Army (TNI)-sponsored militia gangs attacked and burnt Bishop Belo’s residence where hundreds of refugees were sheltering. Shots were fired at him and he was bundled into a car by Indonesian officers and flown to Baucau city, about 200 kilometers outside Dili.
In November 2002, Bishop Belo resigned as Dili’s apostolic administrator citing physical and psychological exhaustion that ”required a long period of rest.” He then went off to Mozambique to do missionary work in the Portuguese-speaking African nation.
”The chances for peace in Aceh are always there. It will take time – for East Timor it took 25 years. We have to have hope and perseverance,” said Bishop Belo.
”But on the other hand it is important that Indonesia shows social justice to the Acehnese people,” he emphasised. ”Peace and human rights go hand-in-hand.”
The talks between the Indonesian government delegation and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement — known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM – are tentatively due to begin in the Finnish capital Helsinki as early as Friday.
This would be the first face-to-face meeting between the Indonesians and GAM since the May 2003 collapse of a prior peace agreement.
But Aceh was already a killing field before the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc on the land.
Killer waves, spawned by a 9.0 earthquake in Meulaboh in western Aceh, lashed the province killing more than 95,000 Indonesians. A further 133,000 are listed as missing, presumed dead – while the exact number of victims will probably never be known. The number of homeless is estimated at 800,000.
In the province, at the present moment, are some 1,700 foreign troops and 2,500 foreign aid workers – who have joined hands in the international relief efforts.
Before the tsunami struck, Aceh has been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations against the GAM, which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since then.
The government put the province under martial law on May 19, 2003 before reducing this to a state of civil emergency one year later.
News reports from Jakarta said hundreds of Indonesian army troops were raiding GAM hideouts across East and North Aceh, which had been devastated by the tsunami. Also, 15,000 extra troops are being rushed to Aceh, on top of the 40,000 already there, to help with humanitarian activities.
”For the Acehnese, the tens of thousands of soldiers in the province are not a source of security; they are equivalent to a plague of locusts,” said John Roosa, an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
”The TNI troops are expected to earn their own money, as the government covers only a part of their expenses. Thus, checkpoints have become moneymaking franchises; soldiers shakedown passing truckers, motorists, and motorcyclists,” added Roosa in an e-mail interview.
The talks between Indonesia and GAM are under the auspices of the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative group led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
Nonetheless, there are signs that a fragile ceasefire negotiated between TNI and GAM – soon after the tsunami struck – has already been broken.
On Monday, GAM issued a statement saying said five of its guerrillas had recently been killed in a government ambush, despite the military’s pledge to focus on relief efforts rather than fighting.
”Looking back, the initial statements of a cease-fire were a moot point, given that the devastation made it implausible to engage in combat operations on either side,” said ‘The Jakarta Post’ newspaper in its Tuesday editorial.
”Nevertheless, it is not too late to hope that the tsunami tragedy can become a catalyst to promote a more passive chapter in the province’s troubled history,” added the daily.
This call has also been echoed by the Aceh-based SIRA group – a students’ body campaigning for a referendum in the province.
”The international community must use this opportunity provided by the tsunami to achieve something positive for the Acehnese people,” said Nasrudin Abubakar, a member of SIRA’s presidium council.
”The Acehnese people have suffered enough. Let them live peacefully, let their children go to school, let women walk around without fear of being raped or killed,” he told IPS. (END)